Even Dakota Johnson Seems to Know 'Madame Web' Sucks

Directed by S.J. Clarkson

Starring Dakota Johnson, Sydney Sweeney, Celeste O’Connor, Isabela Merced, Tahar Rahim

Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures

BY Josh KorngutPublished Feb 14, 2024


Late last year, May December sparked a spirited online debate about the definition of stylistic camp. While Susan Sontag purists were quick to insist that the outrageous tone of the film is to be strictly defined as comedy, many others were happy to shrug off this traditional definition and evolve the scope of camp into something weaponizable.

And then we have Madame Web — one of the worst films in recent memory, which doesn't spin its camp with any sense of understanding or autonomy. It's an outrageous, sometimes entertaining mess that will hopefully supply audiences with enough disastrous creative choices and laughable nonsense to make its two-hour runtime somewhat ironically enjoyable.

In Madame Web, a young New York City paramedic named Cassandra Web (played by a half-awake Dakota Johnson) has her dormant clairvoyant and precognitive mutant abilities ignited after an almost-fatal accident. Now able to see glimpses into the near future, Cassandra discovers that she can make drastic changes to help and ultimately save those around her. This gift was passed on to her from her long-dead mother, who had been studying spiders in the Amazon right before she died. When another mutant (Tahar Rahim) hunts down three seemingly average teenage girls on the subway, Cassandra uses her newfound abilities to save their lives, and the four young women find themselves on the run from a deadly, ruthless foe. 

The story is impossibly bloated, with a meaningless plot — a fate foreshadowed by the "Amazon spider" dialogue made viral by the film's outrageous, campy trailer. None of it makes sense, and the characters often look at each other like they are unsure of whose line is coming next or which ping-pong ball they need to be running from. It's all just one long and ongoing disaster that's occasionally fun to watch but has too much filler to avoid a painfully boring third act. 

Part of what confused me most about this confounding cinematic experience was the quality of its performances. Dakota Johnson has been on a tear lately with her press tour for the film. From eating up journalists who clumsily pestered her about the meme-ification of the film’s trailer to a comedic earthquake survival, Johnson is always a fun personality to witness in real-time. Her nonchalant eccentricity even translates onto the screen here — but instead of laughing with the movie, her performance seems to be constantly self-aware of the mess surrounding her. I can't speak to her internal monologue, but I couldn't help but feel like Johnson as Cassie was in as much awe of the film's spectacular ongoing failure as the rest of us.

Then we have the unfortunate misuse of the film's young leads. Rising superstars Sydney Sweeney, Celeste O'Connor and Isabela Merced play three teenage girls who will one day become mutant heroes but currently require protection from Cassandra. With these three performances, the film goes into truly unforgivable territory. We get short visions of what their future superhero alter-egos look like, and it’s fairly glorious. But these are clearly promises of a cinematic tomorrow we will undoubtedly never see, as the quality of Madame Web is so wretched that any continuation feels all but dead on arrival. The wasted potential of a film led by these Spider-Women, instead of a cardboard cutout of Madame Web, was a grotesque tease. 

While there are more than a handful of moments so terrible that they were an ironic joy to witness, the film is so long and confusing that its ironic value is slaughtered by its third act. Campy, yes — but also terrible.

(Sony Pictures)

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